The Not-So-Global Globes: International Tensions in the Film Industry

The Golden Globes of last Sunday had a distinctly French flavor. After composer Ludovic Bource apologetically excuses himself for being a little uncomposed (he was so overwhelmed by emotion that he had trouble starting his speech) by drawing on cultural differences “I’m sorry, I’m French”), his fellow countryman and national treasure Jean Dujardin stole the show when he accepted the gong for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. Dujardin has enjoyed celebrity status in his home country for years—my best friend, who is French and adores him, already introduced me to him before he found international fame in The Artist and could tell me that in an instance of life mirroring fiction, Dujardin met his wife, who attended the ceremony with him, on the set of his breakthrough performance in Un gars, une fille (A Guy, a Girl) –won over the American audience by wittily starting his acceptance speech with ‘I’m French too,” before flashing his charming smile and continuing his gracious words (to be fair, composed with the help of a translator, but the delivery was excellent).

While Americans embraced the foreign acting elite, some of the actors’ American colleagues managed to alienate foreign viewers. Meryl Streep incited more critique from the British camp by laughingly stating that she was sorry for trampling over the country’s history, referring to her professionally acclaimed but content-disputed portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. The comment will have done nothing to appease her British critics, who already riled at the idea of having an American actress portray the quintessentially British character—an interesting reversal from the drama surrounding Gone With the Wind in 1939, when it was asserted that an English woman could never portray the ‘southern spitfire’ that Mitchell immortalized in her book.

Streep’s insensitivity, while certainly not intended in a mocking fashion, ties in with long-standing critiques of the American film industry appropriating foreign history, characters, or entire movies as long as it brings money to the bank. While Streep could never be accused of being money-hungry—she donated her entire salary to the National Women’s Museum—the blogosphere went crazy. It’s telling of a climate in which pressured film industries, faced with declining attendance, project their problems onto their foreign counterparts and respectively blame Americanization and Europeanization of the domestic markets as the main culprit for falling revenues, as increased competition puts domestic productions into a negative spiral (and of course other producers, notably Bollywood and Latin American cinema, are steadily demanding more attention).

In short, Golden Globes night was like Madonna’s accent: oscillating between American and foreign throughout, which was often met with endearing results but also had the occasional snappy moment (that comeback at Gervais has to be a highlight of the evening). It was emblematic of long-existing tensions between American and foreign productions, and these tensions surface most prominently when there are awards to be divided and chauvinism rears its head. Chauvinism is of all times and of all nationalities, and is currently discernable in the US and in Europe.

After The King’s Speech’s sweep of the awards season last year, and indications that this year The Artist will be the frontrunner for the Academy Awards, it’s clear that foreign productions have an increasing appeal. This is not a comment on the quality of the American film industry, but rather an indication that the latter is willing to embrace works of art that did not originate on the most famous two-square miles in the world. The critique of the tendency to remake European films has also intensified; Let the Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won the admiration of large audiences in their Scandinavian form, but have failed to impress at the box office in their remade versions.

Together, these two trends provide a confusing picture of the state of the film world: on the one hand, there seems to be an increased willingness among moviegoers to view foreign films that are not immediately picked up by large cinema chains, and they even grow wary of remakes, but the film industry itself on the other still seems to think that American versions will be profitable and necessary. And even though both critical acclaim and the attendency have not lived up to expectations, way more people get to see Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as iconic Lisbeth Salander than Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. Of course there are people who, understandably, have less trouble immersing themselves into the fictional world and can identify with the characters more easily when they can directly hear what they are saying instead of reading it from the subtitles.

However, the limited venues in which foreign films can be seen, even if they are in the English language, like The King’s Speech, indicates that the industry itself gravitates towards American productions. Distributors buy American films by the bulk. It’s not just that moviegoers prefer to see Craig and recognize his name, but also in part simply the result of what the large chains decide to screen. The question is if it is just the perceived bankability of American films, or chauvinism and the desire to protect and nurture its own industry, or a little bit of both?

The same question could be asked in Europe. While American films proliferate in the movie theatres, the number of foreign (i.e., non-American) productions that make it into the selection of large cinema chains is generally significantly higher than in the US. The Artist, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; all were screened in the largest cinema chain in the Netherlands—to bring in a personal experience—with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the other two parts of the Millenium trilogy even the subject of a special marathon night when the final film was released. The question of why this is, is not that hard to answer, especially for a small country such as the Netherlands; there are not enough national productions to fill the theatre schedules for an entire year, plus the number of films released in the native language is so little that most Europeans are used to reading subtitles from an early age on (the exception being Germany and to a lesser extent France, where films are dubbed rather than subtitled—and these countries have more own productions as well).

The same goes for television; so much of the content is in English, that subtitle reading is elevated into a form of art and becomes natural before even entering one’s teens, and whether it is English or Swedish that is subtitled is then of little effect. Of course, there is a more simple answer as well: the European audiences are just as sensitive to high quality or entertainment value. They are entertained by the major blockbusters or independent productions as much as any other audience, and as such of course want to see a significant number of English-spoken productions in the theatre to encompass this entire range. Transformers, for example, was one of the best-attended films of 2011, while Winter’s Bone also opened to high acclaim.

However, in Europe, too, there’s a certain chauvinism that prevents the unequivocal celebration of the influx of American films, and it too briefly showed its face at the Golden Globes. The notion that the Americanization of cinema has intensified over the last few decades is espoused by an increasing number of critics. At the Cannes International Film Festival in 1991, a select group of critics lamented and critiqued the—in their eyes—tyrannical rule of American cinema over the festival’s prize cabinet, as The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby wrote in an (editorial (“Critics Notebook: Haunting Cannes”, 23 May 1991). “La Moisson American,” or the American harvest, was “called a scandal, if not a crime,” Canby observed.

This year, Woody Allen opened the event, leading Vanity Fair editorial to once again refer to “a distinctly American feel.” French newspaper Le Figaro was decidedly less positive, and commentators noted that the past 13 years there have been six Americans to head the jury at Cannes (Le Figaro, 6 January 2011). Venice Film Festival 2010 was accused of playing favorites when head of jury Quentin Quarantino selected his close friend Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere as the competition winner, and Tarantino had to defend himself against claims of nepotism from Italian film critic Paolo Mereghetti, who wrote that Somewhere was “charming and interesting in [its] own way, but nothing more than that” (BBC News, 13 September 2010).

Golden Globes Night was Like Madonna’s Accent: Oscillating between American and Foreign Throughout

The current tensions have to be read in the context of the hardships that the movie industry is facing globally: with ticket sales in decline, piracy running rampant, and audiences growing tired of its latest ruse to make up for falling revenues—3D—the industry is under pressure. While this certainly increases the (perceived) competition between various national industries, these are essentially problems that they all have to face together, and scapegoating does not solve a thing. Americanization, Europeanization, Asianization; all these words essentially come down to the same thing, i.e., the fear for the revenue of the own production masked in an irrational fear that foreign films will somehow prove detrimental to the national character.

Why do I say irrational? A case study of the very first feature-length film that became an international success, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, will prove my point and end these scattered comments. The main reason to discount the term “Americanization” it’s misleading; viewers still decode the films from their own perspective, which is determined by the specific context they inhabit. An American watching a French film will pick up on and emphasize different parts of it than a French person, a Ghanian man will watch an American production differently than a Swedish woman. Even in the same country, a film will not be seen the same way by any two individuals. In other words, context matters. All particulars matter.

Of course, the script writer and director can attempt to attach a certain meaning to the content, but that does not mean that this will be wholly picked up by the audience. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, even a distinctively American content cannot be transported unharmed with regard to its preferred reading. D.W. Griffith painted a picture of complete racial warfare, in which rapacious, lying and stealing African Americans were at the verge of bringing the country to ruin. It was a rewriting of the Civil War 50 years after it ended. Historian Joel Williamson identifies The Birth of a Nation as part of one of the three mentalities in the South regarding the Reconstruction Era, conveying a “radical conservative” mentality characterized by a paranoia of miscegenation (Williamsom, The Crucible of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

In the US, theatres showed The Birth of a Nation for unprecedented extended periods. The film became the most successful of its time and was even rereleased several times, as Melvyn Stokes has shown. It was also the first film that made a huge impact on foreign markets, with road show companies active in Great Britain, South America, and Australia by February 1916 (119). The Atlanta Constitution estimated in November 1916 that over 25 million people had seen the film outside of the US and that it was the “excellence of presentation” that could explain this success (19 November 1916). Within a year, road shows had reached not only South America, but Great Britain and Australia as well, an incredible feat for the time, especially as there were only a few copies of the film and traveling was a time consuming and delicate process.

The film thus became popular with audiences that did not readily understand the preferred reading, which is constituted by transforming social reality into a hierarchy of discursive domains, as Stuart Hall theorized in his seminal study of audience reception Encoding/Decoding (172). The structure of a work employs a certain “code” and contains a message, but it is the decoding at a different “determinate moment” that exerts influence over consequent societal practices (168). The codes of encoding and decoding are not always “a perfect fit”, and a “misunderstanding” can occur through a lack of equivalence between producer and receiver (169-170).

The cross-cultural reception of The Birth of a Nation thus proves interesting in that it demonstrates how this absence of an equivalent context—the imprint/institutionalization of the institutional/political/ideological order—results in entirely different readings of the film (172); the dominant themes that were emphasized in foreign reviews were not miscegenation or the dangers of African American enfranchisement, but the battle scenes that Griffith had filmed on such an epic scale. In non-American societies, the naturalized reading of blackness as different and/or dangerous, which Butler has termed “the racist organization and disposition of the visible,” was absent, and instead the context of World War I largely determined the foreign reception of the film (“Endangered” 206).

For example, on 3 January 1916, The Toronto World reported that The Birth of a Nation had broken the audience record of Ben Hur in both Toronto and Montreal, and that the 92nd Overseas Batallion would attend a screening at the invitation of a Col. Chisholm and his staff, of whom some were French veterans. Chisholm is quoted as saying that “No better education for war service could be given the men than to see the war scenes in The Birth of a Nation” (“This Week at the Theatres”).

The importance of the film was thus seen outside of the US in terms of its realistic depiction of battle scenes, rather than in the race/class/gender paradigm structured by The Birth of a Nation, as this was largely ignored in foreign accounts of the film. The foreign reception is thus a prime example of a situation in which the encoding sets “some of the limits and parameters” of decoding—the battle scenes were central to Griffith as a “rite of purgation” needed to transpose familial unity into national unity—but cannot guarantee or prescribe a reading (Hall 173-174). Films can never completely Americanize or Europeanize the spectator.

The real problem seems to be economic, surfacing mostly during award shows, as awards bestow a prestige upon films that will ensure increased attention from audiences. The battle for the spectator creates national rifts. However, the movie industry has to confront its demons not through competition, but through cooperation. In 1915, almost 100 years ago, millions of people inside and outside of US borders flocked to the theatres to take part in a new and exciting experience of moviegoing.

To get to spectators back to the theatre these days, the industry has to bring back this excitement, the wonder of seeing something unique that is enhanced by the shared experience of the movie theatre. It has to reinstate the type of immersion that a laptop and a bag of microwave popcorn can never provide. The Artist’s popularity is testament to the fact that the nostalgia for such a communal experience is at an unprecedented height, and the industry would be wise to heed the call.